By Bill Hendrickson
President, Del Ray Citizens Association
Del Ray’s business district along Mount Vernon Avenue has been booming for more than a decade now, and there is no fundamental reason why the good times shouldn’t continue.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind the inherent fragility of our local businesses.
The basic reason is that they are mostly small and independent, typically operating with slim profit margins and subject to stresses that can quickly sink them.
I was reminded of this fragility recently during a conversation with Nora Partlow, the owner of St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, who told me about the pressures she and other business owners are feeling from rising rents; rents that she feels might be justified in Old Town, but not Del Ray.
Can you imagine the Avenue without St. Elmo’s?
I remember when St. Elmo’s opened in 1996. It was a real phenomenon. The coffee pub craze was just revving up in the Washington, D.C. area. But St. Elmo’s didn’t just sell coffee. It also provided a place for people to gather. It quickly became a destination spot not only for people in the hood but from all over Alexandria and even beyond city limits.
Then in 1997, the Evening Star Café opened with the edgier, updated American cuisine that was just beginning to catch on the D.C. area. It too quickly became a destination for people from all over the D.C area.
I would argue that the opening of St. Elmo’s and the Evening Star were harbingers of the business revival of the Avenue that began in the late 1990s. They were important because they brought people into Del Ray from the outside.
Today, many of our businesses continue to rely on customers outside the neighborhood for their success and survival. Restaurants have generally done well, but retail stores, which typically are open only during the day, have often struggled, because there aren’t enough people around during the day and because the neighborhood population simply isn’t big enough to support them.
The importance of destination businesses to the overall health of the Del Ray business district cannot be overstated. This summer, the antiques and consignment stores Potomac West Interiors and Antiques and Not Too Shabby Consignments were forced to move out of Alexandria because they lost their lease to a Walgreens store.
Both businesses attracted many people from outside the neighborhood. Once here, they often visited other retail shops and restaurants. Partlow tells me that she has noticed a small drop-off in her business since the two stores closed.
Walgreens, of course, is by no means a destination business. It presumably picked its new location at the corner of Monroe and Mount Vernon avenues because it believes it can scoop up some of the many people who drive through Del Ray on any given day to somewhere else.
It’s probably difficult to do much if anything about rising rents or property owners who ask more than most small businesses can afford. I wonder why the retail space in the new Del Ray Central apartments has not been leased or why the two retail spaces in the 1900 block of Mount Vernon Avenue were vacant for so long. The fact that the latter spaces were rented to a branch of BB&T, a national bank chain, perhaps indicates that no small business could afford the rent.
In some cases, popular Del Ray businesses have been able to buy the buildings in which they are located. That was the case with Evening Star, its two lounges, and its companion retail store Planet Wine. It is also the case with Bombay Curry, whose owner purchased the building at 2607 Mount Vernon Ave., after losing leased space in the Calvert apartment building, when that property was closed for renovations.
In the case of Bombay Curry—and in yet another example of the hurdles small businesses face—owner Balraj Bhasin was forced to make unanticipated and very costly repairs to the building in order to operate there, which has led to long delays in the planned reopening. But as he told me recently he feels much more secure now that he owns his own property. He hopes to open this fall.
Any business community is, of course, dynamic; businesses come and go. But we prize stability; we value familiarity. And a major force for stability in Del Ray has been the business community itself.
Business owners have banded together and worked very hard to promote each other and the Del Ray neighborhood overall. The events that the business association sponsors, including Art on the Avenue and the Halloween parade, have brought many new people to the neighborhood as well as helping create the cohesive community we have today.
I personally appreciate their efforts and will do what I can, as DRCA president and long-time resident, to help promote the long-term prosperity of the Del Ray business district. And I hope you, too, will do all you can to support small, independent businesses in Del Ray.